Little Modern Women

It used to be a matter of course that a new big-screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women would go into production every few years. As cinema jumped from silence to sound, from black & white to color, a new version of the same story would grace the screen – ensuring that each new generation of young readers in love with Alcott’s setting & characters could experience them in the flesh. Sadly, that tradition dried up after the 1940s version (featuring Elizabeth Taylor as an overgrown Amy, the littlest woman), leaving a forty-five-year gap before Little Women would be refreshed in adaptation for a new generation. The two major productions that ended that drought—1994’s Gillian Armstrong adaptation and the 2019 Greta Gerwig remix—had a lot of catching up to do, then. It wouldn’t be enough to just revive the same story with the updated stars & filmmaking tech of the modern day. Armstrong & Gerwig instead had to overhaul the material in a drastic display to make up for all the lost time. Both resulting films are great works in their own respects, but only one of the pair truly swung for the fences in its attempt to launch Little Women into the modern world.

On its surface, the 1994 version of Little Women appears to play it safe in its duties as a literary adaptation. Like the Old Hollywood adaptations that came before it, it tells the story of the fictional March sisters’ coming-of-age during the leanest years of the Civil War (an apparently autobiographical account of Alcott’s own youth) in a traditional, linear narrative. The will-they/won’t-they drama of its protagonist’s potentially romantic friendship with the wealthy boy next door drives the heart of the story. Meanwhile, the incidental episodes amongst her sisters that make the novel such a recognizably genuine depiction of childhood (which is almost entirely a series of incidental episodes, at least in memory) fill out the frame around that structural romantic storyline, so that Amstrong’s take on the material is practically a hangout film as much as it is a costume drama. Like in the previous routine of adaptations, the major overhaul in Armstrong’s picture was in seeing up-to-date actors breathe fresh air into iconic scenes from the long-familiar source material. The star-power appeal of 90s-specific heavy-hitters like Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, and baby-faced newsie Christian Bale is the major update to the source material in Armstrong’s adaptation, same as in the previous revisions. The only difference (besides sound & color no longer being new inventions) is in just how much that youth-culture casting was allowed to reshape the text.

In particular, Winona Ryder’s starring role as Jo March is the casting choice that really jolts Alcott’s writing into a 90s era sensibility. As a hopeless 90s Kid™ myself, my love for Winona Ryder as a screen presence predates even my earliest childhood memories – thanks largely to her collaborations with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice & Edward Scissorhands. I still wouldn’t exactly call her approach to acting “versatile,” though. Like fellow Gen-X icons Keanu Reeves, Christina Ricci, and Jeanine Garofalo, Ryder more or less always gives the same performance no matter the project; the trick is just casting her in the exact right role. The brilliance of casting Ryder as Jo March is that her schtick fits both the original profile of the character (a powder keg mix of dorky enthusiasm within her home & righteous disgust with the ways of the world at large) and is distinctly of her own time – effortlessly conveying a sardonic wit central to Gen-X cynicism. If nothing else, the way she rants about the ills of the outside world and indulges in oddball slang like “Capital!” & “Christopher Columbus!” from her writing desk can’t help but recall the parallel narration of Ryder’s career-defining role in Heathers. If Armstrong’s Little Women were made just a few years later it might have updated the setting around Ryder to 1990s suburbia, the way Emma was transformed into Clueless or The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. As is, Ryder is doing all of that modernization work herself, performing Alcott’s century-old text with a 90s attitude & inflection.

Greta Gerwig’s more recent, currently Oscar-nominated take on Little Women was much more stylistically aggressive in its attempts to modernize Alcott’s novel. At the very least, it doesn’t rely entirely on the 2010s indie darlings of its cast (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet) to do all of its heavy lifting in refreshing the material. Instead, Gerwig violently shakes the story loose from the page – assuming that audiences are familiar enough with the source material to appreciate it scrambled out of sequence. In her version, the audience is informed up-front that Jo turned down the well-off heartthrob next door, essentially stripping the story of its will-they/won’t-they drama to push through to other concerns. Instead of following a linear retelling of the entire novel, we watch an adult Jo from the second volume reflect on childhood memories from the first. Meanwhile, debates between Jo and her publisher in New York City prompt metatextual speculations on how, exactly, Little Women relates to Louisa May Alcott’s actual life and what biographical events may have been altered to please her own Male publishers’ demands – forever reshaping how the original text will be interpreted for the screen in the future. In many ways, this recent adaptation of Little Women is about the very act of adapting Little Women – a much headier, more exclusively cinematic approach to the material than the versions that preceded it.

The major narrative innovation of Gerwig’s take on this story is in how it makes the adult half of Jo’s story more compelling by drawing direct parallels to the childhood half. The most iconic, memorable episodes of Little Women tend to fall in its first volume, which captures an enduring portrait of girlhood that allows the work to resonate & reverberate from generation to generation. Centering this adaptation on the adult end of the book is a bold choice, then, but it unlocks a lot of the untapped power of that second half by making direct in-the-moment connections to events from the first. As Jo returns home from New York City to care for a sister who’s taken ill, the familiar sights & personalities of her hometown trigger memories of the book’s most iconic childhood moments, revealing the power of the novel’s bifurcated structure. It also frees Gerwig to pick & choose what parts of the story she wants to emphasize thematically. Gerwig shifts the core story from focusing on Jo’s possible romance with her neighbor to instead exploring her combative relationship with her youngest, brattiest sister. Gerwig also searches for the border between truth & artifice in Alcott’s source material and interrogates how outside influences may have distorted the author’s original vision. While most adaptations lovingly stage Alcott’s exact narrative for the screen, Gerwig’s actively interprets it and its legacy.

There’s a brief image of young children playing pretend as pirates in the March sisters’ attic that flashes in the last minute or so of Gerwig’s Little Women that I cannot stop thinking about. After Jo’s debates with her publisher call into question what “really” happened in her story vs. what literary tastes of the time dictated should happen, I couldn’t help but puzzle over what that image was implying. Was it merely a memory from earlier in Jo’s childhood play than what the book or its resulting movies cover? Was it an implication of how Jo’s published memoir would influence the childhood play of her readers? Or was it a vision of How Things Really Were, as opposed to the distorted version of Jo’s memory that we had been watching the entire film? I don’t really want an Answer to this query. The more important thing is just appreciating how the film’s metatextual self-examination had my mind racing in its final minutes to the point where I got hung up on what, like, three seconds of footage “meant” within the larger story. I really liked how Gillian Armstrong updated Little Women for Generation X by handing the source material over to one of the era’s most distinct personalities (namely, Veronica Sawyer). This latest adaptation from Gerwig is far more adventurous in its own modernization efforts, though. There’s no single image in the 90s version of Little Women that incites personal interpretation or extrapolation the way Gerwig’s film does, which makes the newer film not only more modern but also more outright cinematic.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top 20 Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2019

1. Fighting With My Family This melodramatic biopic about WWE wrestler Paige does an excellent job conveying the appeal of pro wrestling as an artform, offers empathy to every character its story touches without shying away from their faults, and properly sketches out how much respect for women’s wrestling has evolved in the last decade (and how influential Paige was in that sea change). It’s also way dirtier than I expected, often playing like an R-rated Disney Channel Original.

2. Ma Octavia Spencer slums it as an unassuming small-town vet tech who parties with neighborhood teens in order to enact revenge for their parents’ past wrongs. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Spencer devour scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

3. Child’s Play An in-name-only, shockingly fun “remake” of the classic killer doll thriller by the same name. Much like the original, this is the exact kind of nasty, ludicrous horror flick kids fall in love with when they happen to catch them too young on cable, and it directly pays homage to that very canon in references to titles like Killer Klowns From Outer Space & Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.

4. Paradise Hills An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. It’s essentially Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives staged on the set of the rose garden from the animated Alice in Wonderland. A femme fairy tale that takes its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise refreshingly seriously despite the inherent camp of its (sumptuous) costume & production design.

5. Read or Not A list of things that make this Clue & You’re Next genre mashup immensely enjoyable: the careful attention to costume design, the Old Dark house sets, Samara Weaving, Aunt Helene, that “Hide & Seek” novelty record and, most importantly, the rapid escalation of its final ten minutes into full unrestrained delirium. Great nasty fun.

6. Saaho A Indian action blockbuster that opens as a fairly well-behaved Fast & Furious rip-off in its first hour, then pulls an outrageous twist I’ve never seen in an action film before, and finally reveals its title card and the announcement “It’s showtime!” The next two hours are then a throw-it-all-in-a-blender mix of Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Fury Road and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name. Pure maximalism.

7. Pledge A nasty little VOD horror about a fraternity rush week from Hell. The dialogue and performances are alarmingly good for something on its budget level, which makes it all the more horrifying when characters you kinda like are tortured in extreme gore by frat bro monsters for a solid hour of “hazing.” It also sidesteps a lot of the usual misogyny of the torture porn genre by making both the victims & villains All-American macho types.

8. Good Boys Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy BFFs who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire preceding gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future. These are very good boys.

9. Braid Two amateur drug dealers escape police scrutiny by returning to the childhood home of a mentally unwell friend who’s trapped in a never-ending game of violent make-believe. A total mess but also a total blast. Gorgeous costumes & sets, gloriously self-indulgent film school cinematography, and genuinely shocking over-the-top turns in the “plot” every few beats. Think of it as Heavenly Creatures for the Forever 21 era.

10. War Between this & Saaho, my two favorite action movies of the year are both big budget, Twisty blockbusters from India. This one is basically a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. It’s 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.”

11. Glass M. Night Shyamalan explodes his small-scale women-in-captivity thriller Split into an MCU-scale superhero franchise, but hilariously dodges all the accompanying genre spectacle that his budget can’t afford. I am very late to the table as a Shyamalan apologist, but by the time I was the only person in the theater cackling at his attempt to connect the mythology of his own cameos in Split & Unbreakable into a cohesive narrative arc, I was converted for life. What an adorable nerd.

12. Crawl A lean, mean, single-location creature feature in which a father-daughter duo fights off killer CG alligators during intense hurricane-related flooding. Only could have been improved by an alternate ending where they survive the storm only to discover that the entire planet has been taken over by gators while they were trapped inside. Should have ended with gators piloting the “rescue” choppers.

13. Escape Room Basically the ideal version of Saw, with all the nasty torture porn & (most of) the nu-metal removed for optimal silliness. All storytelling logic & meaningful dialogue/character work are tossed out the window in favor of full, head-on commitment to an over-the-top, truly preposterous gimmick: an escape room, except For Real.

14. The Head Hunter A medieval monster slayer seeks to add the head of the beast that killed his daughter to his trophy collection. An impressive feat in low-budget filmmaking that knows it can’t convincingly stage battle scenes on its production scale, so it makes up for it by leaning into what it can do well – mostly delivering grotesque creature designs & a nihilistic mood.

15. Booksmart Maybe not always the most hi-larious example of the modern femme teen sex comedy (in the recent The To Do List/Blockers/Wetlands/Slut in a Good Way tradition) but one with an unusually effective emotional core and more Gay Stuff than the genre usually makes room for. If nothing else, it felt good to know that the kids of Gen-Z are more than alright.

16. Greener Grass A warped Adult Swim-style comedy of manners about overly competitive soccer moms, featuring performances from D’arcy Carden, Mary Holland, Janicza Bravo, Beck Bennett, and similar Los Angeles comedy folks. Total illogical chaos and menacing irreverence from start to finish, with a particular debt owed to John Waters’s post-Polyester suburban invasion comedies.

17. The Breaker Upperers A New Zealand comedy about professional break-up for hire artists, a premise that’s pretty much a wholesome 2010s update to Dirty Work by way of Taika Waititi. Zings quickly & efficiently with incredibly well-defined characters, like a The Movie adaptation of a sitcom that’s already been going for years & years.

18. The Banana Splits Movie A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? It imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. Goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin its character work is (with some especially nasty practical gore gags), which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

19. Countdown Beyond just appreciating that there was a mainstream horror about a killer smartphone app in megaplexes this past Halloween, I admired this for adding three very distinct angles to the technophobic Killer Internet subgenre: the eerie unknown of user agreement text that no one reads; the startling menace of app notifications that unmute themselves every phone update; and car backup cam jump scares.

20. CATSTom Hooper’s deranged stage musical adaptation is the exact horned-up, ill-advised CGI nightmare that Film Twitter has been shouting about for months on end and I’m happy it’s been celebrated as such. Admittedly, though, I was absolutely exhausted by pro film critics’ competition to see who could dunk on the film online with the loudest or the funniest zingers, which tempered my enthusiasm before I got to enjoy its spectacular awfulness for myself (opening week!). As such, I suspect this is the camp gem of 2019 that will improve the most in years to come, once the hyperbolic discourse around it settles and it remains just as bizarre as ever.

-Brandon Ledet

The Rise of Smut: In Praise of Cinematic Vulgarity

More so than any other time I can think of since starting this blog, the past couple months have been a period of intense reflection and reassessment. Swampflix just reached five full years of daily posts, which has me looking back to all our various projects over the years. Of course, this includes our annual Best of the Year lists, which was the very first thing we collaborated on as a crew in January 2014. As List-Making Season is an annual ritual across all online film discourse, this five-year milestone has naturally arrived just as we’re looking back at our favorite films of 2019. This year is especially daunting, though, as these discussions have also been rolled into Best of the Decade list-making, just past the end of the 2010s. Thanks to the Swampflix project, I already have access to a record of my favorite works from over half of that decade, which has allowed me to look back at how my definition of a personal favorite film has evolved over the years, and what films have stood the test of time. The #1 change I’ve noticed in all this Best of the Year/Best of the Decade/Best of Swampflix self-reflection is that over time my standout choices have become much more aggressively vulgar, if not outright pornographic. The films I’ve been promoting & recommending to friends have doubled down on explicit sex as much as they have on political awareness or cinematic surrealism. The larger story of how cinema has changed over the last decade has been one of online distribution, political radicalization, and diversified representation (on both sides of the camera). When looking at my own personal favorites, though, it looks like the story of the 2010s was The Rise of Smut.

In my personal Top Films of 2014 list from our early days of blogging, I singled out Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic Interstellar as my favorite film of that year. It’s still a film I’m still fond of for its combination of precise filmmaking craft and over-the-top sci-fi pulp, but I doubt it would top my list if we were to rehash the Best of 2014 again. In fact, I know it wouldn’t, since I’m currently working on our Top Films of the 2010s lists (to post this February) and there are currently a few 2014 titles listed, while Interstellar is nowhere to be found. I still highly value the combination of high-art cinematic craft and low-brow genre schlock that blockbuster achieves, but it’s since been outshined in my estimation by the value of nastier, more sexually explicit works from that year like Wetlands and Stranger by the Lake. Part of this is due to the fact that we’re now living in a time when the clash of high-brow cinematic craft and low-brow genre content is a lot easier to come by, considering how the market’s been flooded by “Elevated Horror” projects in the past decade (thanks largely to the impressive marketing machine of A24). The larger issue is that this rise of well-crafted schlock has coincided with the near-total disappearance of overt sexuality from mainstream filmmaking, mostly at the hands of our corporate overlords at Walt Disney Pictures. Major studio filmmaking was remarkably less horny in the 2010s than in any previous decade (Hayes Code era included), as the takeover of sexless superhero media (with the one major exception of our collective ogling of Captain America’s ass) and easy-to-scrub blockbusters produced & sanitized for censorship-riddled foreign markets have replaced more “adult” content like the erotic thrillers of decades past. A man who earned most of his notoriety making not-so-subtly-Conservative Batman movies is simply on the wrong side of that war, no matter how much of a kick I got out of his goofy space movie.

Occasionally an overtly horny mainstream movie will break through—like the Fifty Shades of Grey or Magic Mike franchises—and they’re typically met with an appreciative, enthusiastic uproar from general audiences (especially women). These breakaways are a soul-deep relief from the Disney amusement parks that multiplexes have gradually transformed into (Magic Mike XXL especially), but they aren’t exactly the transgressive cinematic provocations I’ve been personally craving lately either. It’s hard to fathom now that there was once a time when outright pornography was threatening to cross over into the mainstream in titles like Deep Throat, Caligula, and Midnight Cowboy. Local drag queen CeCe V. DeMenthe lamented the loss of that wide audience hunger for pure, transgressive smut when she appeared on our podcast to discuss Caligula in particular. She complained that movies weren’t as weird or as vulgar as they used to be in her own heyday of trolling arthouse theaters for smut in the 70s & 80s, which is an assessment I can’t exactly agree with. I ended up making CeCe a list of recommendations for transgressive 2010s films I labeled “The New Extremity” to prove that modern filmmakers hadn’t lost their edge, and I found that most of the titles on that list were the exact works I had been championing the hardest when looking for movies to recommend to friends in general. The only real difference between this list and the films CeCe remembered from her smut-filled youth was the scope of their distribution and cultural impact. As much as I might personally love a deliriously horny cinematic bazaar like The Wild Boys or We Are the Flesh, their impact on the wider pop culture landscape has been essentially nil – to the point where a lover of explicit, bizarre cinema who’s hungry for that kind of content isn’t even aware they exist.

I don’t believe the dominance of safe, wholesome content in recent years—like Disney’s superhero sagas, made-for-Netflix Christmas romcoms, and The Great British Bake-off—is a matter of happenstance or even a corporate mandate (at least not entirely). Audiences genuinely crave this comforting, life-affirming content on a grand scale, seemingly as a reaction to what a miserable shitshow the world has become outside the cinema. Even I’m susceptible to craving wholesome pop culture figures to guide me through these dark times, especially role models of what it means to be a good, decent man in the modern world: Steven Universe, Mister Rogers, Paddington Bear, etc. It’s a necessary counterbalance to the ugly reactionary Evil that the more toxic end of masculine representation has slipped into in recent years (up to and including actual, true-blue Nazism). I even feel a little guilty when I find myself recommending depraved, explicit smut out in the open this flagrantly, as it often doesn’t feel like what the world needs right now in this exact moment. For instance, we recently threw a low-key New Year’s “party” where guests were invited to drop by for snacks & drinks as we rewatched our favorite films of 2019. As most of my favorites have been falling into the outrageous, uncomfortable smut category as of late, this led to a lot of our friends walking into selections unprepared that made them . . . squeamish – namely In Fabric, Knife+Heart, Climax and, the biggest offender of all, Violence Voyager. I stand by those choices as Best of the Year heavy-hitters and worthwhile grotesque provocations, but I still couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt for subjecting unsuspecting friends to these horny nightmares I’ve become accustomed to watching alone on the couch (not least of all because many of these titles went from festival to VOD distribution without much theatrical play). It was an epiphanic moment of clarity in which I realized just how far my tastes have been skewing away from wholesome escapism towards unrepentant smut. It felt shameful.

I’ve yet to consult with my therapist about how much of that shame is genuine concern and how much of it is just regular old social anxiety (it’s no coincidence that my version of a “party” involves everyone directing their attention towards a TV screen). I do know this, though: the novelty of seeing explicitly sexual, artistically transgressive smut through proper cinematic distribution means is a dying pastime. Yet, I believe more of it is being made now than ever before; it’s just falling outside the bounds of official distribution channels and critically legitimized media. As more of the pop culture landscape shifts towards boardroom-vetted, “morally” sanitized, Family-friendly media and corporate IPs, I find myself slinking further down these dank tunnels of cinematic depravity, finding just as much comfort in gleefully taboo titles like Double Lover & The Untamed as I do in genuinely wholesome life-affirmers like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? & Paddington 2. Maybe it’s just comforting to know they’re still out there, even though their goal is often to alienate & discomfort – like a slimy security blanket.

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/9/20 – 1/15/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Weathering with You Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai follows up his heart-on-sleeve anime melodramas Your Name. & 5 Centimeters per Second with yet another magical-realist high school romance: this time about a teen girl who can control the weather. Playing in special Fan Preview Screenings on January 15 and 16 via GKids before opening wide.

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Parasite The latest from Bong Joon-ho (director of Okja and Swampflix’s favorite movie of 2014, Snowpiercer) is a twisty, crowd-pleasing thriller about class resentment that’s been selling out screenings & earning ecstatic critical praise for months as its distribution exponentially spreads. Don’t miss your chance to see one of 2019’s universally beloved genre gems big, loud, and with an enraptured crowd. Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

Jezebel A dramatic memoir about a woman whose sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work in the late-90s. Thematically it falls somewhere between Cam & The Florida Project, but it’s not as stylistically aggressive as either of those titles. Wryly funny, quietly tense stuff but never in a showy way (especially considering the subject). Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2019

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Lighthouse. I know I would love it, and hope I get the chance to see it before I compile my “best of the decade” list so that it gets its proper acknowledgement from me.

First the 2018 holdovers. As I mentioned in last year’s year-ender, I was laid up for much of the last few months of 2018 after a pretty bad accident. I even already had tickets to Suspiria and Bad Times at the El Royale for the weekend after I got hit by a truck. I even reached out to some of my friends in The Industry to see if any of them could get me a screener of Suspiria because if there was anyone in the world who had a vested interest in how it would turn out, your boy here is that person. So here are my holdovers from 2018 that would have made my list were it not for other circumstances:

  • Bad Times at the El Royale: I was a much bigger fan of this one than Brandon was. I loved just about every part of it, including getting to see Jon Hamm playing both into and against type as a much more openly racist version of Don Draper, vacuum salesman. As someone who generally feels anxiety in public accommodations, I always get a kick out of thrillers set at hotels (Bug, Identity) and doubly so if there’s a voyeurism element to them, even if they’re overall not very good (Vacancy). Combine that with a lethal cult, a necessarily oddball hotel, and great direction from Drew Goddard, and you’ve got a hit, as far as I’m concerned. 5 stars!
  • If Beale Street Could Talk: A tender portrait of a love that is stronger than falsehoods and white police rage, a love that can outshine and outlast injustice even if it is unable to defeat or overcome it. Stunningly, achingly beautiful, this is a film that engenders rage, frustration, gentleness, and mercy, all wrapped in a single package, and although it passed pretty quickly from the public consciousness, I expect it to be vindicated by history. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Three Identical Strangers: Holy shit, did you see this documentary? Every time I thought we had hit the weirdest wall possible in the story of these three brothers separated at birth, another revelation was waiting around a blind corner to pull the rug out from under me again. A heartwarming story of siblings who find each other as adults becomes a bizarre conspiracy about testing the limits of nature and nurture. This is not one to skip. 4.5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Mom and Dad: Nicolas Cage builds and destroys a pool table, just as he built and destroyed a family. An interesting pairing with something like Who Can Kill a Child?, Mom and Dad is a hell of a ride, even for those among us who may be growing tired of Cage’s nonstop drag race to be in every movie that’s sent his way. Not to be overlooked here is Selma Blair, who really ought to be getting more work; she’s a treasure. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Cam: Essentially a full length episode of Black Mirror focusing on one woman’s career as a successful cam girl whose identity is stolen wholesale by an evil… virus? Digital doppelganger (digiganger)? There are weaknesses in the film, especially when Patch Darragh as Arnold / TinkerBoy appears and the film drags, but overall, it’s a compassionate and humanizing look into the world of sex work and the travails thereof. It’s also a great showcase for Madeline Brewer, who at one point I laughed off as a poor addition to an already pretty terrible program, but she’s really proven me wrong. 4 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.
  • Suspiria: Holy shit, what a ride! Vulture may have ranked this one 5,234th out of the 5,279 films released this decade, but they are wrong, wrong, wrong. As a noteworthy fan of Dario Argento in general and the classic Suspiria in particular, I didn’t want this film to exist. En route to a screening of the Creepers cut of Phenomena last year, a friend asked me if I was excited for the then-upcoming remake, and I admitted that I preferred that it wasn’t happening, but since it was happening andfor better or worsewe would all have to live with it, I was cautiously optimistic. And I have to say: if you’re going to remake an inarguable classic, this is the way to do it. It even makes you wonder, retroactively, why the original didn’t include certain elements that were nominally part of the plot (i.e., dancing) as more integral aspects of the narrative. Despite being an altogether very different film, tonally and visually, the spirit was true. They even had characters discussing the importance of counting steps! 5 stars! Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable mentions! My favorite short-form horror-comedy of the year comes to us from the genius who decided to pair that horrible and horrifying trailer for CATS with the remixed version of “I Got 5 On It.” I have watched this video no fewer than twenty times since it first hit the internet, and I doubt I will ever get tired of it. I also wanted to give special mention to Happy Death Day 2 U, which I thoroughly enjoyed as a bubblegum pop horror flick, even if it skewed more closely to science fiction and I had no knowledge of the first one (the decision to watch a sequel to a movie I never saw came after a long and spirited debate that exhausted me mentally and physically).

I also want to give special commendations to Hulu’s Into the Dark series, produced by Blumhouse (stay with me here). An anthology series that aired its first few episodes in 2018, Into the Dark airs a new feature-length “episode” once a month, with each episode based around a holiday occurring in that month. I’ve been working on backtracking to do a review of each of these, but four of the episodes/films released in the first season of the show deserve particular attention. I couldn’t in good conscience put all four in my “top” list, but I did pick what I consider the best one for that (dubious) accolade and wanted to highlight the other three here.

  • First, in April, ITD‘s producers skipped over the more obvious choice of an Easter-based feature and instead went for broke with I’m Just Fucking With You, an April Fool’s Day episode that features Keir O’Donnell as Larry, a man who seems like the posterboy for the word “nebbish.” En route back to his hometown to attend the wedding of an ex-flame, he arrives at a hotel and, after encountering the business’s aggressively impish clerk Chester (Hayes MacArthur, a.k.a. Mr. Ali Larter), proceeds to obsessively clean every surface in his room. Here we learn that Larry leads a double life: mild-mannered by day, edgelord supreme by night. He’s the worst kind of internet troll, and this includes slut-shaming and recommending suicide to the very friend whom he’s intending to visit. Chester is just the worst parts of Larry made manifest in the real world, a trickster who pushes him to go further and further until there’s no turning back. Gorgeously shot (I think that part of the denouement may even have been filmed at the same pink/blue saturated pool area as the end of Strangers: Prey at Night, which barely missed being on my 2018 holdovers list) and extremely tense, this one’s worth checking out, even if it doesn’t stick the landing (a common problem for Into the Dark episodes, if we’re being honest).
  • After my Erstwhile Roommate and I finished watching Culture Shock, the Independence Day-themed episode that premiered in July, we turned to each other and I noted that while it wasn’t the most thoughtful Into the Dark, it certainly was the most thought filled. This debut directorial effort from Gigi Saul Guerrero is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen from an American production house, following the harrowing and dangerous journey of pregnant immigrant Marisol (Martha Higareda) as she makes a second attempt to cross the Mexican-American border in an effort to find a better life for herself and her child. And find it she does! Marisol, suddenly able to speak English with ease, awakes to discover herself in a seemingly perfect small American town, a pastel Pleasantville, where she is encouraged to integrate and assimilate. She slowly discovers that this new life is not all that it seems, but not in the ways one expects. Although the ending of this one is rather messy (again, an Into the Dark recurring feature), Culture Shock has the most powerful final image of any ITD episode to date.
  • All That We Destroy, ITD‘s Mother’s Day episode, broke the boundaries of what the series had done so far up to that point. October’s The Body followed a hitman trying to get rid of a victim’s body on Halloween, November’s Flesh & Blood featured an agoraphobic girl wondering if her father was a serial killer, December’s Pooka! was the story of one man’s descent into madness during his employment as the mascot for Christmas’s hottest new toy, February’s Down was a banal “trapped in an elevator with a psycho” story, and March’s Treehouse was a confused jumble of mysticism and revenge fantasy. All That We Destroy goes full sci-fi thriller as a powerful geneticist (Samantha Mathis) confronts the reality that her artistic but withdrawn son (Israel Broussard) may be a budding serial killer. To determine how best to rectify this problem, she creates clones of his first victim (Aurora Perrineau) over and over again to see if she can find another outlet for his tendencies, all while he grows closer to a new girl in the neighborhood (Dora Madison), who must be really desperate for company. This is one of the few ITDs that manages to stick the landing, despite some narrative missteps.

Whatever, brah, enough talking, let’s blade.

15. The Perfection. Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer wasn’t a fan of this one and its narrative conventions, and neither was Brandon, who validly criticized the film for its lazy use of tired sexual assault tropes in its examination of the motivations of its main characters. I would never argue that the narrative crutch of sexual violence isn’t an overused trope in Western media, nor that any individual bears responsibility for overlooking its use in a work; I may have been disappointed that The Mary Sue stopped doing Game of Thrones coverage after a particularly heinous plot turn in that show’s fifth season because their coverage is always great, but far be it from me to be the kind of person who doesn’t respect that decision. But in an era when there’s greater visibility of the behavior and verbalizations of casual misogynists and sexual assailants with no accompanying increase in accountability, this is a film that lays bare the ways that dangerous men can be passively protected from public scrutiny by the inaction and presence of women in their lives (as Steven Weber’s Anton is by his wife, Alaina Huffman’s Paloma) while taking aim at the cabals of men who support and reinforce each other’s vile natures. The way that men talk about women when they think that they’re only in the presence of other straight men is fucking vile, and this is a film that doesn’t shy away from the end result of what can happen when that kind of attitude is unopposed. It also doesn’t lie about the consequences of what happens to victims: there are no happy endings; the happiest thing you can hope for, even when justice is meted out and revenge has run its course, is to still be only part of what you once were (visualized in an extremely literal way). There is no more innocence, no more perfection, no more feeling of being complete.

14. IT: Chapter 2. From my review: “Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the ‘adult’ half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the ‘monsters’ go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes.”

13. New Year, New You. You may have noticed that, above, I skipped over mentioning the January episode of Into the Dark, and that’s because this one was so much fun that it surpassed honorable mention status and belongs on the list. Ably directed by Sophia Takal, who also wrote and directed this year’s Black Christmas remake (which I have not seen), I can honestly say that the 2010s contribution to the ongoing legacy of Heathers, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls has finally arrived, and just under the wire, too. Starring Suki Waterhouse as Alexis, the film follows the New Year’s Eve reunion of a quartet of high school friends after years apart. Kayla (Kirby Howell-Baptiste of Crashing and Killing Eve) and Chloe (Melissa Bergland) are the first to arrive, and they’re doubtful that Danielle (Carly Chaikin), now a successful new media influencer, will show up. When she does, she first attempts to take advantage of their longterm friendships for more social cache with her online audience, but the other three women have other designs: to get Danielle to confess to bullying one of their high school classmates, social torture that eventually led the girl to kill herself. Alliances shift and, as no surprise to anyone familiar with the cutthroat world of Instagram influencing, things get out of control quickly, until people are locked in steam rooms with murderous intent. It’s a fun ride that demands to be seen.

11 and 12. Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Fyre Fraud. Speaking of influencer culture, the beginning of 2019 saw the release of two separate documentaries about the implosion of the dead-in-the-water music/culture event known as the Fyre Festival. The brainchild of Billy McFarland, a privileged kid from an incorporated suburb in New Jersey who ran one of the best long cons of the new millennium, Fyre Festival was a music “experience” intended to promote the launch of an app that would function as a kind of Uber for fans to set up performances with musicians, artists, and “influencers.” Co-signed by Ja Rule, the festival was a disaster from the word “go,” and the festival became a laughingstock of the internet, where the overprivileged goons who were foolish enough to pay a ludicrous amount of money in order to attend found themselves sheltered in emergency housing and feasting upon white bread and cheese slices instead of the promised luxury cabins and gourmet meals. Theoretically in competition (The Greatest Party That Never Happened was released by Netflix and Fyre Fraud was released by Hulu), the two actually function as sublime companion pieces that should be seen together to get the full picture of just how much schadenfreude money can’t buy. Read my reviews of Fraud here and Greatest Party here.

10. Shazam. Zachary Levi makes a star turn as DC’s Big Red Cheese, the Shazam formerly known as Captain Marvel, one of the oldest comic book superheroes in existence (fun fact: while home from work on Christmas Eve, I watched an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which the lead visited a bunch of children in the hospital and one of them was reading a comic book featuring this very character). A surprisingly good flick coming out of the DC film house, this one takes all the wish fulfillment that has long been a part of this character’s naturea child becomes an adult superhero when he speaks the titular magic wordand crafts a narrative about two separate people whose home lives leave much to be desired and how each charts their own path, a narrative of choosing to let go of resentment and naïveté to embrace hope or hopelessness. All that, and it’s a throwback to the kids movies of the eighties, films that understood that children want to be scared sometimes, and embraces that paradigm, balancing fright and fun in equal measures. Read my review here.

9. Midsommar. From my review: “I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the ‘day won’t save you’ concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of ‘darkness’ with about the success that you would expect. […] What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called ‘static image[s] of relatively little interest.’ […] The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.”

8. Hustlers. Don’t let the marketing fool you: Lizzo is barely in this movie. But that’s okay! Jennifer Lopez gives what may be the performance of her career in this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy thriller set during the 2008 economic collapse. Ramona Vega (Lopez) is a single mother and veteran stripper with aspirations of becoming a swimwear designer. She takes Destiny (Constance Wu) under her wing and teaches her how to profit from men’s piggishness, and for a time, their cohortincluding Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Anabelle (Lili Reinhart)are living the high life. When the economic crisis hits the upper echelons of Wall Street, aka their clientele, the apparent glamour of their lives is removed and the bloom is off the rose, and desperate times call for criminal measures.

7. Knives Out. From my review: “Knives Out is [a] rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a ‘Communism was a red herring’ way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be ‘self-made’ despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made.”

6. Us. From my review: “It doesn’t give too much of the film’s message away to say that it is about class and the way that it creates dark mirrors for ourselves everywhere, the way that getting out of the darkness of poverty is often impossible, and that those who manage to somehow embody the mythological idea of social mobility must do so at the expense of others, ultimately becoming complicit in the suffering of those who might otherwise have been your peers. Of course, with a film like this one, there are going to be other interpretations, but it’s all there. Consider: Adelaide’s father, playing Whack-a-Mole, knocking down facsimiles of rodents as they try to rise up out of the darkness underground. Consider: that Gabe constantly finds himself trying to one-up Josh, only to find that Josh himself is imitating his own decisions, in an orobouros of attempts to keep up with the Joneses. Consider: that ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about how one person covets an entire object despite said object being a dime bag that both parties going halves should share between the two of them (‘I got some bucks on it, but it ain’t enough on it’). Consider: the power of art as the impetus to empower the recognition of interclass economic struggle and the ability to transcend (or at least ascend within) it. Consider: the repeated refrain of the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that eternally attempts to climb and is forever pushed back down. Consider: when arriving at the beach house, the family eats fast food, except for Adelaide, who eats strawberries; why? Consider: what does a Black Flag t-shirt mean in 1986 when worn by a teenager working long hard hours versus being worn by the child of a comfortably wealthy family in 2019?”

5. Avengers: Endgame. Unlike in past years, I’m not just going to stick all of the Marvel movies in one slot, because really, only one of them really and truly stood out to me this year. Captain Marvel was good, and Alison Brie is always cool, but I haven’t felt the need to revisit it at all, and its position as the first Marvel flick to end up solely on Disney+ instead of Netflix has put it out of my reach (I’m at once disappointed in all of you for not boycotting the announcement of yet another streaming service in order to force Disney to put its material back on one of the existing services while also recognizing that we are all but ants in the House of Mouse’s shadow). Tom Holland’s latest outing was also nothing to write home about, either, other than some pretty good Mysterio illusions and that scene where everybody talks shit about dead Tony Stark. Love it or hate it, the MCU is here to stay, but if it weren’t (and even I have argued that a break would be a good idea, as I did in my Spider-Man’s European Vacation review), this would be a loving and lovely finale to the end of the first “volume” of a franchise that is going to either peter out in the next few years or outlive us all (see also: Star Wars). As I said in my review, this is the “All Good Things” of the Marvel film franchise, and I loved it, no matter what comes next. But I’d be surprised to find an MCU movie in my list next year, if we’re being honest. Also, Peggy‘s in it!

4. Doctor Sleep. From my review: “I loved this movie. […] This film never feels its length, and the muted public reaction and mediocre box office returns are a personal disappointment; this film was never going to surpass The Shining, but it’s not far behind, and [director Mike] Flanagan was right to mix the original film’s solemn meditative qualities with occasional frenetic setpieces. In a lifetime of watching movies, I’ve never been so invested or felt so much tension in my spine when watching a scene of a man eight years sober struggle to not take a drink, even in Kubrick’s opus; it’s powerful movie-making at its best, and I can’t recommend it more highly. McGregor gives one of his best performances here, and Ferguson is likewise a delight. Sleep really and truly deserves all the attention that it’s failing to garner in the mainstream, and is the rare horror sequel to live up to (and feel like it truly belongs to) the legacy of its predecessor.”

3. Parasite. From my review: “‘Money is an iron.’ This is the thesis statement of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a beautiful film about the lengths that one family living in poverty will go to in order to climb the ladder of social success. As stated by a member of this quartet, money is an iron, as it irons out all the wrinkles in life, both metaphorical and literal, leaving behind flawless skin and a life virtually devoid of the anxieties of the common man. […] Money is an iron. For the Parks, it is the metaphorical iron that makes life smooth and effortless, and the iron strength of the walls that separate them from the riffraff below. For the Kims, it is the iron of prison bars that keep them in a metaphorical prison of society and, perhaps, a literal one; it is the weight that drags them down, a millstone to prevent them from ever escaping the trap of stratified social classes.”

2. The Farewell. I loved The Farewell, so much so that it came pretty close to unseating my number one, which would have been the first time in my 4.5 years writing for Swampflix that my number one wasn’t a horror picture. A heartbreaking story of the ties that bind, across great expanses of land and ocean and time, of the love that only grandmothers can give (and receive), of the consequences of secrecy and the secret wounds we bear and take on in order to make life just that much more bearable for the people in our lives. It’s a story of the purest kind of love, the kind that comes from a loss of self as part of a greater whole, the loss of identity following the wrenching of being taken from the places and people that we love, even if all we have are impressions of them. Sometimes, to love is to scream and strike back at the world; sometimes, to be is to shout and declare “I am here.” But sometimes, to love is to sacrifice in silence, and the simple act of being requires a quiet acceptance of the inevitable which cannot be fought, and which shouldn’t. I can’t even think about this movie without crying; it’s just that beautiful. You can read Brandon’s review here.

1. Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife + Heart). Of course this is my number one. What else could it possibly be? This may be my new favorite movie of all time. Never in my life has there been a film that slotted into so many of my particular and particularly obscure interests. From my review: “Never before have I ever seen a movie that was made for me the way that Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife+Heart) was. Seventies [period piece] giallo featuring a masked killer in black leather gloves? Check. Queer story that focuses on a troubled woman who drinks herself into unconsciousness on a nightly basis and is unable to let go of a lost love? Check. Vertigo/Body Double-esque plot points about obsession with apparent doppelgangers? Check. M83-as-Goblin soundtrack? Check. A plethora of shots of old school film editing equipment being put to good use? Check. A peek behind the curtain of the seventies gay porn scene? Check! Women in white wandering around a forest as gales of wind blow all about them? You betcha. A strangely centric fable about grackles? Is it my birthday?” My year-end Spotify data even revealed that M83 was my most-listened artist this year, with the track “Detective Rachid” as my most-played song from the group. I think about this movie all the time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

#52FilmsByWomen 2019 Ranked & Reviewed

When I first learned of the #52FilmsByWomen pledge in late 2016, I was horrified to discover that I hadn’t reached the “challenge’s” quota naturally that year, despite my voracious movie-watching habits. Promoted by the organization Women in Film, #52FilmsByWomen is merely a pledge to watch one movie a week directed by a woman for an entire calendar year. It’s not at all a difficult criteria to fulfill if you watch movies on a regular routine, but so much of the pop culture landscape is dominated by (white) male voices that you’d be surprised by how little media you typically consume is helmed by a female creator until you actually start paying attention to the numbers. Having now taken & fulfilled the #52FilmsByWomen three years in a row, I’ve found that to be the exercise’s greatest benefit: paying attention. I’ve found many new female voices to shape my relationship with cinema through the pledge, but what I most appreciate about the experience is the way it consistently reminds me to pay attention to the creators I’m supporting & affording my time. If we want more diversity in creative voices on the pop media landscape, we need to go out of our way to support the people already out there who work outside the white male hegemony. #52FilmsByWomen is a simple, surprisingly easy to fulfill gesture in that direction.

With this pledge in mind, I watched, reviewed, and podcasted about 52 new-to-me feature films directed by women in 2019. The full inventory of those titles can be found on this convenient Letterboxd list (along with a re-watch of Goodnight Mommy for our “Good Torture Porn” episode of the podcast). Each film is also ranked below with a link to a corresponding review, since I was using the pledge to influence not only the media I was consuming myself, but also the media we cover on the site. My hope is that this list will not only function as a helpful recap for a year of purposeful movie-watching, but also provide some heartfelt recommendations for anyone else who might be interested in taking the pledge in 2020.

5 Star Reviews

Strange Days (1995), dir. Kathryn Bigelow – “Incredibly prescient about the way virtual reality technology, misogynistic abuse in the entertainment industry, and documentation of systemically racist police brutality would play out in the following couple decades. Bigelow frames the social & political crises of the 1990s as the beginning of the End Times. The scary thing is that it feels like we’re still living in the exact downward trajectory depicted onscreen.”

Smithereens (1982), dir. Susan Seidelman

When I Get Home (2019), dir. Solange Knowles

Blood & Donuts (1995), dir. Holly Dale

4.5 Star Reviews

Messiah of Evil (1973), dir. Gloria Katz – “You can approximate a nearly exact equation of what genre pieces were assembled to create its effect; it plays like a post-Romero attempt at adapting ‘Shadows over Innsmouth’ as an American giallo. However, you can’t quite put your finger on how these familiar pieces add up to such an eerie, disorienting experience. That’s just pure black movie magic, the goal all formulaic horrors should strive for but few ever achieve.”

Blue Steel (1990), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Homecoming (2019), dir. Beyoncé Knowles

4 Star Reviews

Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls (1989), dir. Katt Shea – “In its most surreal moments, Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls is like a psychedelic, Kate Bush-inspired porno where the performers took too many hallucinogens and accidentally slipped into interpretative dance when the script said they should bone. At its worst it’s low-energy Skinemax sleaze, which can be charming in its own way. In either instance, it’s way more entertaining & bizarre than the first Stripped to Kill film, despite their shared penchant for poorly aged, queerphobic conclusions.”

Punisher: War Zone (2008), dir. Lexi Alexander

Gully Boy (2019), dir. Zoya Akhtar

Aniara (2019), dir. Pella Kågerman

High Life (2019), dir. Claire Denis

Paradise Hills (2019), dir. Alice Waddington

Hail Satan? (2019), dir. Penny Lane

I Am Not a Witch (2018), dir. Rungano Nyoni

Yellow is Forbidden (2019), dir. Pietra Brettkelly

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), dir. Marielle Heller

The Farewell (2019), dir. Lulu Wang

Jezebel (2019), dir. Numa Perrier

Confessions of a Suburban Girl (1992), dir. Susan Seidelman

Braid (2019), dir. Mitzi Peirone

Buckjumping (2019), dir. Lily Keber

Booksmart (2019), dir. Olivia Wilde

3.5 Star Reviews

Greener Grass (2019), dir. Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe – “Whether it’s grossing you out with the moist, passionless sex of its suburbanite goons or it’s breaking every known rule of logical storytelling to drive you into total delirium at a golf cart’s pace, the film is uniquely horrific & punishing – and hilarious. You should know approximately thirty seconds into its runtime whether or not its peculiarly antagonistic humor is something you’ll vibe with; there’s just very little that can prepare you for what it’s like to experience that aggressive irreverence for 100 consecutive minutes.”

The Breaker Upperers (2019), dir. Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), dir. Susan Seidelman

This Magnificent Cake! (2019), dir. Emma De Swaef

Steven Universe: The Movie (2019), dir. Rebecca Sugar

Knives and Skin (2019), dir. Jennifer Reeder

The Banana Splits Movie (2019), dir. Danishka Esterhazy

Slut in a Good Way (2019), dir. Sophie Lorain

Tenement (1985), dir. Roberta Findlay

Ladyworld (2019), dir. Amanda Kramer

Share (2019), dir. Pippa Bianco

Hunting for Hedonia (2019), dir. Pernille Rose Grønkjær

Nancy (2018), dir. Christina Choe

Cassandro, the Exotico! (2019), dir. Marie Losier

The Field Guide to Evil (2019), dir. Veronika Franz, Katrin Gebbe, Agnieszka Smoczyńska

3 Star Reviews

Spookies (1986), dir. Genie Joseph – “Fractured across two separate production crews and held together only by its central haunted house locale, this is effectively a creature feature horror anthology: a series of disconnected vignettes that each present a spooky-creature-of-the-minute for our temporary enjoyment.”

Disco Pigs (2001), dir. Kirsten Sheridan

Stripped to Kill (1987), dir. Katt Shea

Captain Marvel (2019), dir. Anna Boden

Dumplin’ (2018), dir. Anne Fletcher

Satanic Panic (2019), dir. Chelsea Stardust

Psycho Granny (2019), dir. Rebekah McKendry

Riot Girls (2019), dir. Jovanka Vuckovic

Daddy Issues (2019), dir. Amara Cash

Origin Story (2019), dir. Kulap Vilaysack

Would Not Recommend

The Loveless (1981), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Detroit (2017), dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Always Be My Maybe (2019), dir. Nahnatcha Kahn

Fyre Fraud (2019), dir. Julia Willoughby Nason

-Brandon Ledet

Movies to See in New Orleans This Week 1/2/20 – 1/8/20

Here are the movies we’re most excited about that are playing in New Orleans this week.

Movies We Haven’t Seen (Yet)

Little Women Greta Gerwig’s directorial follow-up to Lady Bird is an ambitious literary adaptation that scrambles the timelines & narrative structure of its source material to break free from the expectations set by its cultural familiarity. Major bonus points: yet another featured role for 2019 MVP Florence Pugh, who had a legendary year between this, Midsommar, and Fighting with my Family. Playing wide.

Queen & Slim The debut feature of Melina Matsoukas, whose work on the Lemonade-era Beyoncé video “Formation” already establishes her as a director who demands our attention. Pulling from pervious on-the-run epics like Bonnie & Clyde and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, this modern tale of accidental cop killers on the lam looks like a stylistically sharp, politically furious punch to the gut. Playing wide.

Movies We’ve Already Enjoyed

Uncut Gems The Safdie Brothers revise the sweaty desperation of their traumatizingly anxious thriller Good Time by casting Netflix Doofus Extraordinaire Adam Sandler in the lead role, transforming that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. It’s wonderfully stressful. Playing wide.

Jezebel A dramatic memoir about a woman whose sister roped her into being a camgirl in the early days of online sex work in the late-90s. Thematically it falls somewhere between Cam & The Florida Project, but it’s not as stylistically aggressive as either of those titles. Wryly funny, quietly tense stuff but never in a showy way (especially considering the subject). Playing only at Zeitgeist Theatre & Lounge.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: Last-Minute 2019 Catch-Ups

I am terrible at watching movies this time of year, like bad at the actual act of doing it. Most of the Awards Season titles that light up pro critics’ lists don’t do much for me personally, and I’ll play catch-up with movies I’ve been dying to watch for months and genuinely think things like “This is really good but is it Best of the Year good?” Shameful. In the few instances where a surprise gem stands out as something special (Luz being my most recent example), I then fret over how to make room for it on my already overstuffed list of favorites from the year. I’m extremely grateful to have finally pushed through to the lawless chaos of January Dumping Season. Now we can all binge on gimmicky genre trash no one really gives a shit about; this is when I shine brightest.

Instead of entirely discarding the few last-minute splurges of 2019 catch-ups that I enjoyed but failed to be wowed by, I figured I’d collect them here in a short list of quick takes. Because I was aiming to cram in as many titles as possible, I knocked out the five shortest movies on my watchlist. They were all good-to-okay, and probably (definitely) all could have benefited from being viewed outside this unholy end-of-the-year cram session season. Here they are listed by shortest-to-longest runtime (with corresponding star ratings) in case you too want to rush through a few more interesting titles before we wrap up the list-making process and leave 2019 behind us forever, forgotten and discarded.

This Magnificent Cake! – 44min

A satirical series of stop-motion vignettes that mock the imperialist brutes of Belgian-occupied Congo as absurd grotesqueries. The soft felt & yarn materials used to construct the stop-motion puppets and the Looney Tunes-style modes of death—including discarded banana peels & falling pianos—clash horrifically with the real-life horrors of colonialism & racial subjugation. The film mostly interprets its setting through the nightmares of the oppressors, but it’s oddly reserved for something so steeped in surrealism & historical cruelty.

I never quite fell in love with it, but its combination of ambling dream logic & ice-cold Roy Anderssonian slapstick humor at least felt freshly upsetting in an interesting way.

Share – 87min

A dramatically realistic crossroads between Unfriended & HBO’s Euphoria, in which a high school athlete & honor student discovers a disturbing cellphone video of herself from a night she doesn’t remember. Our troubled teen protagonist wants to put the (almost certain) possibility that she was assaulted while blackout drunk at a party behind her, but the nature of social media & modern tech means her experience with the trauma cannot be handled privately. While the teen boys who filmed her (and likely physically assaulted her) mostly avoid legal & social repercussions due to a lack of physical evidence, their victim is the only one who’s effectively punished. Isolated, forced to dwell on the details of the event for months on end, and missing out on the best stretch of high school play, she sinks further into a private, internal misery while the outside world moves on, unchanged.

While the examination of rape & victim-blaming in the digital age is obviously a tough topic, the film nimbly deals with the aftermath & trauma of the scenario without succumbing to the potential for exploitation or alarmism. Its sickly digi-cam footage & fluorescent lighting were also very much on-brand with the Evil Internet media I’m always a sucker for. I’m ashamed to admit it, but with a supernatural horror element & a creepy synth score, this likely would have been one of my favorite movies of the year. Instead, it’ll have to settle for just being really good.

The Banana Splits Movie – 89min

A SyFy Channel Original that’s somehow a genuine delight? The Banana Splits Movie imagines a world where its eponymous Hanna-Barbera children’s show (which was a real-life TV program in the late 1960s) starred killer animatronic robots instead of failed actors in mascot costumes. At a live taping of the decades-running pop culture relic (which only lasted three years in real life), a Chuck E. Cheese-style cast of rock n’ roll robots go haywire and murder select, obnoxious members of their audience, contrasting a cutesy Saturday Morning TV setting with amusing fits of horrific gore.

I had a lot of fun with this, or at least more fun than I expected to. The dramatic writing is about on par with what you’d expect from a SyFy production, but the practical gore gags are a nasty delight once it gets cooking. It’s goofy & violent enough to be worthwhile despite how thin the character work is, which is more than you can say for most of the originals that network broadcasts.

Relaxer – 91min

The writer & star of 2015’s Buzzard (Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge) team back up for yet another exercise in grotesque slackerdom. This time they deliver a magical-realism period piece set during the final weeks before the Y2K Apocalypse. Two shithead brothers locked in a one-upmanship game of escalating, pointless dares they call “Challenges” seemingly bring on the Apocalypse by attempting to beat an unconquerable level of Pac-Man in a single sitting. Unable to leave the couch until the Challenge is complete, Burge’s antihero slacker rots in his own putrid filth for months on end while the world crumbles around him and the Pac-Man lights & noises help pass the time. Also, the trusty pair of 3D glasses he uses as a security blanket when upset may or may not give him superpowers.

I appreciated this slightly more than Buzzard, but I’m still not totally sold on this duo’s variation on artful slackerdom. I got a few queasy laughs out of it, though, and the supernatural angle was a plus. Mostly, I just walked away from it disgusted with the human body and fearful that if I ever lived alone, I’d quickly devolve into this exact couchbound purgatory of filth.

Pihu – 91min

This movie has an incredible ripped-from-the-headlines premise. Left alone with a mother who commits suicide, a two-year-old toddler fends for herself for several days, unsupervised. Like a horror movie variation on Kore-Eda’s Nobody Knows, this Indian melodrama follows the toddler around her (upscale, but messy) apartment for days as she attempts to accomplish simple tasks like feeding & entertaining herself without suffering a gauntlet of potentially lethal obstacles: pills, fire, heights, sharp objects, live electricity, hot irons etc.

It’s an anxiety-inducing nightmare of a premise (one we’re told is “based on a true story”), but it’s also one that undercuts its own in-the-moment effect in a few disappointing ways. There’s a cheesy After School Special quality to the way its themes of suicide & domestic abuse are dramatized, not least of all because the actor who plays the toddler’s father (mostly as a disembodied voice) is excruciatingly awkward & insincere. Worse, the movie opts for a soothing, gentle sitar score to contrast the in-the-moment danger of its pint-sized protagonist, when it really needed a Mica Levi-style nightmare of creepy ambiance. Still, if you’re looking for a novelty horror version of Baby’s Day Out, its central hook is strong enough to carry it through its minor distractions & shortcomings, even if just barely.

-Brandon Ledet

Kathryn Bigelow and the Loveable Scumbag

On of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movies about men. Her prestigious war dramas aren’t exactly jingoistic love letters to American patriotism, but they do appeal to a kind of macho sensibility that helps explain why they would be praised over women-led projects with a quieter, more introspective bent. I don’t believe this is some calculated, cynical angle Bigelow chose in order to earn Awards Circuit accolades, though. The nature & textures of masculinity (and masculine violence) have been an auteurist preoccupation for the director dating all the way back to her early career as a genre film toughie. Her breakout success Point Break is a passionate bromance between an undercover cop and a dirtbag adrenaline junkie. Her cult classic vampire Western Near Dark follows the seduction & indoctrination of a macho farm boy into a subservient role among a clan of ghouls. Her Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—follows history’s greasiest anti-hero’s exploits in worming his unwanted, uninvited way back into his ex’s life. Masculinity is the thematic through-line throughout Bigelow’s decades-long career. It’s even one that concerns her debut feature.

Bigelow’s debut feature as director, The Loveless, is an early 60s motorcycle gang pastiche. It essentially remakes the Brando beefcake classic The Wild One as in introspective art piece (as opposed to Cool as Ice, which remade it as a breakfast cereal commercial). A young Willem Dafoe stars as a tragically beautiful biker brute in his first lead role. Unlike the mouthy charmer Ralph Fiennes plays in Strange Days, Dafoe hardly speaks a word in his leather biker get-up. Rather, his classic machismo is communicated though intense stares and hardened body language. Occasional poetic voiceover about how “the endless blacktop is [his] sweet eternity” suggests there’s a poet’s mind behind his stern eyes and supermodel cheekbones, but that suggestion of vulnerability only makes his machismo more dangerous. When Dafoe’s biker gang parks in small-town middle-America on their way to the races at Daytona, his pronounced male beauty inevitably captivates local women – leading to their ruin at the hands of jealous, abusive townies. Dafoe’s biker beauty isn’t as actively malicious as Fiennes’s scumbaggery is in Strange Days or Patrick Swayze’s hedonistic thrill-seeking is in Point Break, but his leather jacket & rockabilly lifestyle is still a destructive force for those seduced by his allure. His masculinity is both a pleasure & a bane, something Bigelow would expand upon in later works.

Fortunately, her sense of filmmaking craft & narrative purpose would expand as well. The Loveless is visually sumptuous in a way Bigelow’s later features consistently are (reflecting her formal education as painter). However, it’s also frustratingly inert – often feeling like a nostalgic fashion magazine shoot rather than a proper feature film. Willem Dafoe is so goddamn beautiful to gaze at in his leather get-up that it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s narrative shortcomings, but its 82min runtime still manages to linger for a relative eternity. The closest the film comes to exhilarating action is in a climactic, crazed shootout at a townie dive bar. However, it’s a violet display Bigelow later perfected to a very similar effect in Near Dark – making this early trial run feel trivial in retrospect. The entire point of the film, then, is the visual seduction of Dafoe’s macho posing & posturing. It was Bigelow’s very first film and she was already fixated on what masculinity means, what it looks like, and what effect in manifests in the world. There can be a debate as to why that fixation is rewarded in critics’ and awards institutions’ circles over the preoccupations of other women auteurs, but it’s clear to me that the impulse in Bigelow is at least personal & genuine. Like Angela Basset in Strange Days, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, and Marin Kanter in The Loveless, she can’t help but fall for a loveable scumbag.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017), and last week’s comparison of its police brutality themes to those of Blue Steel (1989).

-Brandon Ledet